That is the last time I EVER congratulate a cape buffalo on her "pregnancy." Zoba thought to himself as he rotated his bruised shoulder. All sorts of joints ached. Some dust had gotten in his eye and no amount of blinking seemed to be clearing it out. The one, single female cape buffalo he had run across several minutes ago certainly showed Zoba a thing or two. No matter how pleasant he tried to be, he couldn't seem to make a cape buffalo even smile. He was beginning to think they were all just perpetually angry.
Finally, Zoba arrived at the source of the scent he had been following since his little incident with the angry bovine. It was almost too good to be true, but there it was. A small pool twinkled in the sunlight. His suspicions were confirmed when he dipped a paw in the water, sending small ripples out. It was warm. Much more so than it should've been. Definitely a hot spring. Jackpot.
Wasting no time, Zoba climbed in. As he soaked in the hot water, his muscles relaxed and he let out a sigh of relief. Nearly involuntarily, Zoba closed his eyes and leaned his massive, muscular body against the smooth stone that lined one side of the pool. Parts of his mane floated and drifted underneath the surface. In the quiet, he could feel his own heartbeat. It was a soothing lullaby to him. Given enough time, he could fall asleep like this.
The little cub toddled forward, climbing over roots and branches as she followed the scent of water. She could tell she was getting close but she couldn't see it anywhere. The grass was just tall enough to brush against her belly, a slightly irritating sensation. Slowly, the cub turned around, looking this way and that. Maybe she had missed it. She was had increasingly thirsty. She shifted her gaze upwards to see the canopy. The trees were taller than she had thought and the streaks of light that reached down through the branches held her attention. She wasn't even paying attention to the fact that she was still walking, sometimes spinning around, fascinated by the upper parts of the jungle.
Zoba had begun to sink lower into the healing warmth of the hot spring when he opened his eyes just briefly, and just in time to watch the oblivious little furball slip into the deep end of the pool. The lion's heart skipped a beat and he gasped, lunging forward. The cub flailed about, suddenly wet and with no ground beneath her paws. She had only been under the water for a couple seconds before Zoba lifted her out, carrying her by the scruff on the back of her neck.
A million questions rushed through Zoba's head. What's a cub doing here? Where's her mother? He stopped on one question. Is she alright?
As soon as he had set her down on a dry patch of grass, the cub coughed as she tried to gain her footing. Zoba rested a paw on her back. She was so small, he nearly covered her entire body with the one paw. He almost certainly could if he tried.
Gradually, the cubs coughing began to slow. Finally, she turned around to see Zoba, who had snatched her out of the water. A small gasp escaped her as she lowered her head, ears flattened. Step by step, the little cub retreated behind a tree. She couldn't decide whether to continue hiding or just book it in some other direction. She interrupted herself with a final, high pitched cough and covered her mouth, attempting to prevent any more noise.
Zoba couldn't help but smile at the little cough. But there was still the somewhat troubling fact that she was scared. The big lion knew that the last thing he should do was to approach her. Instead, he lowered himself back into the hot spring, facing off to the side so that he could still frequently glance in her direction. He could just make out an ear and a pair of whiskers peeking around the tree trunk. Whether the cub knew it or not, she was safe. Until her mother showed, he would stay right where he was.
Minute after minute passed and the cub still hid behind the tree, occasionally looking around the trunk to see Zoba still there. She hadn't noticed that it was getting darker, but Zoba did. Slowly, the big lion lifted himself out of the water and shook the excess moisture out of his fur. It was time he said something to her. Slowly, Zoba padded over to the tree. He was a few meters away from the base of the tree and the cub was right behind it.
"You're safe. That, I promise. I'll help you, but it's dangerous out there. Especially at night." Zoba spoke softly. He hoped she would heed his words. He couldn't make her stay with him, but the death of a cub was something he hated to think about. It made him hope all the more that she would choose to stay with him until he was able to find her mother. This wasn't the first time he had run across a lost cub. Very few chose to stay with him. Who could blame him? Many of them had probably witnessed strange lions killing their brothers and sisters. It was an all-too-common occurrence.
Zoba bowed his head for a moment. Only seconds later, the cubs paws pitter-pattered towards him. She sat right in front of him, nearly between his paws. It surprised Zoba how readily she had approached him, and with such confidence. He stood there, mouth agape for a moment, then smiled. Her choice to come with him settled his heart. All his fears for her had left his mind.
"I hope you trust me." He said. Her reply was a single, fearless look and a small squeak, the tiniest vocalization.
With that, Zoba leaned down and picked her up by the scruff of her neck. She barely weighed anything to him. The little girl hung from his gentle jaws, the most fragile ball of fur. Zoba's mind still hung on her sudden confidence. The few cubs who had accepted his protection were usually extremely fearful.
The sun had disappeared over the horizon and the sky now glowed orange and pink to the west and to the east, the stars began to twinkle against the deep blue and black night. A gentle breeze fluttered through Zoba's mane as he stepped through the trees and bushes. Minutes passed as he searched for a suitable resting place. Eventually, Zoba came upon a precipice, jutting out above him. The lion followed the wall, knowing it'd be difficult to climb up, especially with such a fragile package. The cub began to stir and shiver. Zoba noticed that the breeze had picked up and it was indeed getting colder. He tucked his chin into his chest, bringing the cub into his mane a bit, unsure of its effectiveness at comforting her.
Just then, as the faintest touch of desperation set in, he came across an indentation in the rock face. It wasn't exactly a cave since there was no stone or earthy ceiling. Instead, it was covered by the roots of a tree that seemed to straddle the cavity. Old, grey logs and gnarled stumps laid just at the entrance, obscuring the view inside just enough. It was perfect.
The cub fidgeted and cried faintly for a moment as a particularly frigid gust swept over the two. Zoba wasted no time moving into the shelter. He stepped around a shallow pool of water and laid down in a dry spot against the wall. He set the cub down in his arms. She was small enough that Zoba's large paws and forearms could keep her off the ground. There, she lay, nestled into his fur, immediately beginning to fall asleep. Zoba took just a moment to look at her and wonder where she came from. He wondered what her name was. He whispered a soft goodnight and laid his head over his paws, covering the cub with his mane save for her head.
It was in these moments that Zoba felt strongest. He had a protective nature and it was almost an emotional need. Being an unmoving shield for those with no protection otherwise was what made him feel that he had a purpose. Knowing that this cub was safe, and knowing that she felt safe, made him feel more alive than he had in a long time. As the wind intensified a bit more, Zoba fell asleep.